Dawn has just broken over the Solent, the stretch of water separating the Isle of Wight from the English mainland. The rain is lashing down, there’s a ferocious wind and the butterflies are ricocheting around my stomach. I may be kitted out in a bright red Musto sailing jacket, salopettes and wellies, on the deck of a 50ft yacht, but I’m the most improbable sailor imaginable, unlike my all-female team of crewmates. For starters I can’t tread water, I barely know the difference between starboard and port, and as for the myriad ropes which control the sails — they’re called ‘sheets’ — they may as well be spaghetti.
So what on earth am I doing, about to tackle the Round the Island Race? This is one of the world’s largest yacht races, 50 nautical miles around the Isle of Wight, and this year more than 1,600 boats — everything from small dinghies and ancient wooden schooners to hi-tech catamarans and super-yachts — are taking part. Olympian Ben Ainslie is in the race, as is sailing stalwart Dame Ellen MacArthur.
But so too are thousands of amateurs and weekenders who love the challenge of harnessing the wind to the best of their abilities. And novices like myself, who can’t resist a challenge and adore the coast.
I’d first heard about the race several years ago while attending the annual Cowes Week, one of the biggest and oldest regattas in the world. I posted a message on the ‘crew wanted’ forum of the Cowes Week website, declaring myself a willing and enthusiastic novice. Within minutes I’d received a reply and as a result ended up trying a taster sailing session. That, in turn, led to a weekend beginner’s course, also in Cowes, which I loved. My tutor was kind and patient and it was she who’d told me about the Round the Island Race. It sounded mad: it can take all day to complete the course. There are collisions, capsizings and boats running aground on sand flats, while seasickness, falling into the water, and sustaining injuries are all possible. To put it mildly, the race isn’t for the faint-hearted. Yet despite my inexperience, I wanted to be part of this spectacular racing armada. How must it feel to be part of a crew, immersing yourself in the effort, the drama, the highs and lows of such a venture? Would I cope? Would I be seasick? Would I feel stronger, more confident, somehow transformed? As is often the case though, a hectic schedule and a too-tight budget meant it wasn’t until two years later, on a trip to the Isle of Wight, that my desire to participate was rekindled.
Girls for Sail
While interviewing a world-famous mariner, I’d spotted a yacht sailing into the marina; its all-female crew were leaning on the railings, waving and grinning and sporting T-shirts. ‘Girls for Sail’, they read. Given the sailing world is overwhelmingly male, I was intrigued.
Based in Cowes, Girls for Sail offers courses, weekend breaks and holidays to women of all ages and abilities, as well as opportunities to take part in events, including the Round the Island Race. I loved the company rules: ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question; and there is no shouting when sailing.’
I learned that founder Annie O’Sullivan — an experienced skipper and instructor — started Girls for Sail 12 years ago, as she was frustrated by the limited opportunities for women wanting to take the sport up. “I was constantly elbowed out of the way on-board by the chaps. It made learning difficult. Though women may not always be as physically strong as men, we have great potential to sail brilliantly using technique, tactics and great teamwork,” she had told me.
I signed up there and then, which explains why a few months later, I’m in the midst of preparing for the race, in less than ideal circumstances. The previous day’s training session had been cancelled owing to poor weather, which meant I and a few of the women are going into the race ‘cold’, without having sailed for months (or in my case two years). At least we’d had a safety briefing based around the two main hazards: fire and flooding. “What’s the fastest way to bail out a boat?” asks Harriet, one of the Girls for Sails instructors, only half-joking: “A scared sailor with a bucket!”
My crewmates are bright and energetic: there are 25 of us spread across three yachts. Our ranks include a psychologist, three lawyers, a nurse, a woman who runs a cake-making business, a local authority worker, six teenagers and several mums — in fact I’m surprised to discover I’m one of the few childless women here. And in age, we range from 15 to 51. Sure, most of the women have done some sailing before, whether it be a one-off holiday, a course or at school, but they are welcoming and friendly. Most are here to have fun, enjoy the spectacle and finish safely. One or two are fiercely competitive. And we’re not quite the blind leading the blind: each boat is helmed by an experienced skipper from the school.
I soon get chatting to Fiona Black, a hospice nurse from Cheltenham. She tells me she’s been on a couple of sailing holidays on traditional tall sailing ships — different from our modern yacht — but has never been in a race. “It looked exciting,” she says. “Plus my children have all left home and I’m looking for things to do to fill the void. Sailing with an all-female crew appealed — with an all-male crew you can end up feeling sidelined.”
Single mum Alex Lawrence from Kent, who has sailed in the Whitsundays and the British Virgin Islands, tells me the constraints of motherhood mean she can only indulge her love of sailing once or twice a year. “I’ve been on a boat plenty of times but I’ve never had a defined role,” she says. “I’ve learnt it pays off to make yourself useful, ask questions and get stuck in. I’ve wanted to do the Round the Island Race for years but could never find the time.”
I’ve been assigned to join the crew on the poetically named vessel ‘Night Swimming’, with Girls for Sail founder Annie O’Sullivan at the helm. She instantly takes command. Before we leave the marina, we don life jackets and she insists we eat and drink, so half the team is put to work making breakfast. “It’s important you stay fed and dry: you need to graze today, ladies. We don’t want you going hungry or getting dehydrated.” I help put out cereal bowls, muesli and yoghurt, while bacon is fried for sandwiches and a kettle is boiled for tea.
The other half of the crew are on deck, under leaden and then sodden skies, untying the boat from its mooring, helping to guide it out of the congested marina. Over the radio, we hear several classes of smaller boats have had to withdraw, owing to the strong winds. We hold our breath, look to the skies and pray that won’t be our fate.
It isn’t. When the gun goes off, we barrel past the start line and head in a westerly direction around the north of the island — boats surrounding us are frantically jostling for position. From the shore the fleet looks surreally beautiful: from where I am it’s bedlam, a blur of billowing sails cutting across each other, often only a gasp-inducing few inches apart.
Tall, blonde skipper Annie doesn’t mince her words when it looks like a collision is imminent. “Tacking NOW,” she commands, our cue to turn the bow through the wind. My role in the manoeuvre is to act as rail-mate, or ballast, to balance the boat. This means scuttling across the deck, while trying not to tumble into the water, or crash into my fellow railmates. At around 9.30am we spot the abandoned, upturned hull of a yacht — an unsettling sight.
As we head towards the iconic Needles — a formation of jagged chalk rocks — mid-morning (Olympian Ben Ainslie, helming a 162ft schooner called Eleonora, had reached this point three hours earlier) the wind is still blowing hard and the water is churning. It’s time for a tea break. I volunteer to do the honours and duck into the galley. Every lurch and sway of the boat is magnified down here. Mugs, tea bags, sugar and milk clatter across the surfaces, and I’m grateful for my sea legs and anti-sickness tablets.
I nearly set off the smoke alarm when a stray rope flies into the flame on the gas ring and catches fire. And as for the loo: once I’ve managed to extricate myself from lifejacket, waterproof pants, jacket and fleece, I then have to hang onto the door rail for dear life so as not to end up head first in the toilet bowl. I fare better when, back up on deck, Annie puts me to use in the role of ‘grinder’, otherwise known as ‘winch wench’: using the winches to pull in or let out the sails. It’s physically demanding work and leaves me breathless, but I’m grateful for the task.
We’re not short of food on the boat, thanks to motherly crewmate Sue who has baked quiche, pork pie, brownies and lemon drizzle cake. The food is nourishing, delicious, restorative and we all — bar mother and daughter duo Elaine and Abigail who are looking decidedly green — scoff it down.
Beyond the Needles, along the southwest coast, the sun finally makes an appearance. Many of the boats have hoisted their brightly coloured spinnakers (a type of sail that balloons out) and, against a glittering sea, it’s an extraordinary spectacle. But there’s still drama amid the waves: on the radio, there’s a call for the coastguard, a sign that somewhere on the water a crew or boat is in danger. We spot a rescue helicopter winching someone off a boat. After the race, I learn a man was taken ashore with a suspected broken leg.
As we head into the calmer waters on the last stretch, we pass the popular resorts of Shanklin Beach and Sandown Bay. Spirits lift as we spot the finish line — a steamer adorned with a fluorescent pink clock. When we cross it, a ragged cheer breaks out on the boat and we positively pump our fists in the air. It had taken us just over nine hours, but we — I — have done it.
Am I feeling invincible? If truth be told, the sense of achievement I’d anticipated is muted by sheer exhaustion. A day later, though, exhilaration takes over. Weeks on, the feeling of excitement is still there. I know I’ve been privileged to fulfil a dream and I’m proud I’ve taken this extraordinary race in my stride. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Wild, wet weather, crashing seas and all.
The J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race is held annually on the Isle of Wight. The next event will be 1 June 2013.www.roundtheisland.org.uk
A three-day sailing trip with Girls for Sail starts at £399 which includes skippered yacht, all safety equipment, breakfasts and lunch and onboard accommodation in the Round the Island Race. www.girlsforsail.com
The Jubilee Sailing Trust offers sailing trips for people of all physical abilities to sail side-by-side. www.jst.org.uk
Classic Sailing hosts sailing adventures on classic ships and no experience is necessary. www.classic-sailing.co.uk
Neilson runs three-week ‘boat delivery’ sailing trips to Halkidiki, Greece, among others. www.neilson.co.uk
The Yacht Week offers affordable sailing breaks. www.theyachtweek.com
Turquoise Holidays offers private yacht and sailing catamaran breaks. www.turquoiseholidays.co.uk
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is the world’s largest annual trans-ocean sailing event. www.worldcruising.com
Ultimate Sailing Adventures: 100 Extraordinary Experiences on the water, by Miles Kendall. RRP: £20. (Wiley Nautical)
Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur. RRP: £7. (Michael Joseph)
Sailing for Dummies, by JJ Isler& Peter Isler. RRP: £14.99. (John Wiley & Sons)
Three Ways to Capsize a Boat, by Chris Stewart. RRP: £7.99. (Sort of Books)
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)